It’s easy for a film to get lost in the plethora of projects Martin Scorsese has completed over the years. When you’re surrounded by the likes of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Wolf of Wall Street and Goodfellas, classics like After Hours and Cape Fear often get forgotten.
Initially helmed by Steven Spielberg, Cape Fear, the story of a convicted rapist released from prison after a lengthy sentence and decides to track down the family of the lawyer who tried to defend him years ago, has recently reached its 30th anniversary. A dark and violent film, Steven Spielberg, who had just bookended the family-friendly Indiana Jones trilogy with The Last Crusade, decided to turn down the project, offering it instead to his good friend Martin Scorsese whilst staying on as a producer through his Amblin Entertainment.
Speaking to the New York Times, Spielberg commented on the notoriously treacherous script, “I wasn’t in the mood; it’s as simple as that…I just couldn’t find it inside me to make a scary movie about a family being preyed on by a maniac”.
With Bill Murray bizarrely chosen by Spielberg to take the lead role of Max Cady in Cape Fear, Scorsese quickly came in and requested his long-time collaborator Robert De Niro take the part instead. Ever the method actor, De Niro, completely gave himself to the villainous role of Cady, a man out for pure revenge on the lawyer who imprisoned him 14 years ago. With a creepy, slow, Southern accent, De Niro underwent a total physical and emotional transformation, decorating his body with multiple tattoos whilst pumping iron to develop a muscular physique.
In perhaps his most drastic transformation ever, however, Robert De Niro even paid a dentist $5,000 to have his teeth ground down, sharpened and deformed for his menacing role. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal in the film, among various other sparkling awards, it seems as though the choice was worth it, even if De Niro could have easily just used prosthetic teeth. The actor later paid the dentist $20,000 to have his teeth restored to full health once the film’s production was complete.
This wasn’t a totally isolated incident of insanity either, with De Niro taking to the streets of New York in a yellow cab for his role in Taxi Driver. For two weeks before shooting, De Niro trawled the streets day and night, developing a feel for life from the driver’s seat in the seedier areas of New York. It was an essential education as well as a downright dangerous one. The areas around Precinct 75, where he would patrol, were notorious crime hubs and, often, that would spill from the streets into the backseats.
De Niro wasn’t the only one either, with co-star Harvey Keitel going to Time Square, where he spoke with prostitutes and asked whether they could arrange some meetings with their employers. When the actor was met with reluctance, he eventually managed to locate a former pimp who was happy to rehearse scenes with him, apparently intoxicated by Hollywood’s draw. It allowed Keitel to add a dash of realism to his character that had so far been missing from cinema.
Here’s to the mavericks of Hollywood!